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Sideline to Center Mat, Cassar Continues to Battle

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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A long layoff from competition hasn't stopped Penn State's Anthony Cassar from staying focused. The redshirt sophomore starter at 197 pounds was out of the lineup the past two seasons, but now wrestling at 100 percent, he's poised to continue to wrestle his way to the top.

"I'm feeling great," Cassar said. "This has been something I've been visualizing and working toward for what felt like forever. Two solid years and three counting my redshirt year of just hard, hard work and waiting for this moment to show everybody what I've been working on. I'm just having fun doing what I do best."

Cassar is out to a 7-1 start including a Keystone Classic title this year, and Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson likes what he sees.

"Health wise he's 100 percent," Sanderson said. "He just needs experience. He wrestled a few folk style tournaments as a true freshman a long time ago. The last two years he has been injured so he hasn't really been wrestling much folk style. He's got a lot of great tools and a lot of potential."

The sophomore hasn't been discouraged by his injuries and the coaching staff continues to see him improve. Cassar has two wins over ranked opponents this season.

"He does some phenomenal things," Sanderson said. "He's got a great feel and when he pulls the trigger he usually scores. So we want him to pull the trigger more often, but he's a big strong kid, he's getting better every match and the better the opponent the more we learn."

On December 3 against Lehigh, the pressure was on for Cassar with his team trailing, 19-17, and only two bouts left. The Rocky Hill, New Jersey native responded with an 8-3 decision over Jake Jakobsen giving the Nittany Lions a lead they wouldn't relent.

"That was a great environment," Cassar said. "I definitely felt the nerves and was excited, but once I got out there it's really just a testament to what you do (in practice). I didn't have to think and I did what I do in here which is work hard."

While the Nittany Lions shift their focus to opening the Big Ten dual slate against Indiana, another obstacle stands in the way - finals week. Sanderson made specific note that the Nittany Lions are scheduling around finals at the moment to give the team optimum time to wrap up the semester on top.

"Their focus is on their academics right now," Sanderson said. "Our workouts are around their academics. They need to finish strong."

As the Nittany Lions continue to work through December, January brings a big change with six dual meets and the Southern Scuffle on deck. Sanderson thinks his team is ready for the challenge, as he won't be doing anything drastic in the room.

"It's not really anything too complicated," Sanderson said. "Our guys are training as soon as they get to school and a lot of these guys train throughout the summer. We're ready to compete. We want to compete a couple times a week and we're looking forward to that stretch of the year."

Penn State hosts Indiana to begin the Big Ten slate at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17. The Nittany Lions are 18-0-1 all-time against the Hoosiers who feature just one ranked wrestler.

Trio Poised to Continue Momentum

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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With eight undefeated Nittany Lions, top-ranked Penn State wrestling travels to Allentown to wrestle No. 7 Lehigh Sunday.

For Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson, Sunday's dual meet brings together a pair of programs with a longtime storied rivalry, perhaps one of the longest in college wrestling. Spanning 105 meetings, Lehigh is tied for Penn State's second-oldest opponent, but by far the most common for the Nittany Lions.

"Lehigh always has a great team," Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said. "They're very well coached and they always peak at the end of the year and wrestle great at the national tournament."

The Nittany Lions enter the week following a dominant showing in their most recent outing at the Keystone Classic. Among the consistency throughout the lineup this year, Jered Cortez, Zain Retherford and Vincenzo Joseph have all combined for a 17-0 record and two Keystone Classic championships ahead of this weekend's trip to the Lehigh Valley.

From fresh starts to fearless approaches, catch up with all three ahead of Penn State's final outing before opening the Big Ten slate Sunday, Dec. 17 against Indiana.

Retherford
Two-time reigning national champion Zain Retherford is 7-0 to start the 2017 campaign. Similar to his teammates, Retherford hasn't been afraid to try some new moves and sometimes that means getting taken down, something he isn't afraid of.

"Just don't worry about it," Retherford said. "If I'm worried about getting taken down then I'm not worried about my own offense. I think I'm kind of defensive minded so if it happens it happens but my whole thought is just keep scoring points no matter what happens out there."

While Retherford doesn't spend too much time thinking about his season as a whole, he does take the time to break down each performance.

"I don't like to give myself a grade," Retherford said. "I kind of just do that after each day, like on  the bus, for example after the Keystone Classic. I'm just thinking about what I did well and then what I need to work on. So I don't really grade myself, but I keep track of what I want to be doing and what I want to be learning. I don't think that's ever something that stops, I'm always going to be doing that, learning and trying new things."

Cortez
It has been an interesting journey for the redshirt junior. Cortez had to sit out the 2015-16 season after transferring from Illinois to Penn State and was sidelined last season with an injury.

Now wrestling at 141 pounds, after starting at 133 pounds last season, Cortez is grateful for the opportunity.

"A lot of times people take it for granted," Cortez said. "With injuries that can happen and so I'm just very grateful for the opportunity and am just excited to get better every day."

With a 7-0 start to the season, Cortez is more comfortable at the new weight class.

"It's night and day," Cortez said. "I feel a lot better. I just feel good, I can feel my legs all the time, my lungs feel good, I feel strong and fast. Overall I'm just focusing on the right things and that's important in a sport like this where every little detail matters. I can focus on the small things and just getting better every day than just focusing on my weight."

With the change in weight, Cortez is excited to start each dual meet.

"I wish we could start at 141," Cortez said. "I'm ready to go in that one hour weigh in and I'm that third match up usually. My body feels good, I feel fresh. It's good I can feel my feet, move my hands and get to my attacks."

Joseph
The reigning national champion at 165 pounds is off to a perfect start at 3-0 this season. After missing the Keystone Classic, Joseph is ready to wrestle and happy with his efforts so far.

"I think I've been doing a good job of just wrestling hard," Joseph said. "That's really my goal every time I step on that mat, just to wrestle hard and score points.

Over the next few weeks, Joseph is focusing on improving technique.

"I'd like to work on top a little bit better," Joseph said. "But, overall just keep being able to push the pace and find different ways to score."

Nolf Focused on Improvement

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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - There's certainly no denying Penn State's Jason Nolf has already made a name for himself among Penn State fans. Just two dual meets into the 2017-18 campaign though, the redshirt junior remains as hungry for more as ever.

"He's just a student of the game," head coach Cael Sanderson said. "He's improving in all areas. You see him wrestling he's always trying new things."

Nolf has consistently treated the Nittany Lion faithful to a variety of unique and different moves.

That even includes a "secret move" Nolf broke out last Thursday to start his season out with a win by fall in the opener against Army. He followed with the same outcome in Sunday's win against Bucknell, totaling seven takedowns before pinning Christian Bassolino at the 3:33 mark to crack into the Penn State top 10 in all-time falls with 31 in his career.

Sanderson is nothing short of impressed with what he's seen from Nolf through the years.

"Some of the stuff that he's doing are the kind of moves that you don't really do until you're done wrestling and you're playing around as a coach," Sanderson said. "He's fearless enough that he'll master it and throw it out there and he enjoys that." 

In his freshman season, Nolf came one win shy from winning a national championship, but last season took home the title at 157 pounds on a truly memorable night in St. Louis.  

While fans may love to see the bonus point victories, it's all about improving for Nolf.

"Nolf's just a guy when you talk about expectations people just expect to come and watch him score a ton of points," Sanderson said. "And if he doesn't you're wondering well what's wrong with him. You can see he's constantly working and playing with the sport and that's why he's better now than he was a year ago. Next year he'll be better than he is this year."

After his NCAA national championship in 2017, Nolf then turned to Team USA wrestling over the summer, placing third in US World Team trials and fourth in the US Open.

"I'm doing about the same stuff I've always been doing," Nolf said. "Just learning a lot of different things and working with my coaches on strength and on techniques. Just learning about new stuff." 

While dedicated to his craft day in and day out, it's a combination of things that make someone like top-ranked Nolf so unique. 

"Nolf's special," Sanderson said. "We'll probably never see anybody ever like him again. He's just unique and special and we're glad he's on our team."

Although out to a 2-0 start along with his team, for Nolf, it is individual success that motivates the group.

"I think we motivate each other as a team and as teammates," Nolf said. "The more one person does well, the more everyone else wants to do well. Our coaches are really good at getting us focused on what we need to be focused on. I think we all know what we want to do and that's what it comes down to."

The top-ranked Nittany Lions return to action Friday, on the road taking on Binghamton at 7 p.m.

Nittany Lions Showcase a Different Kind of Consistency

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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -  The Nittany Lion wrestling team is no stranger to bonus point victories, but Sunday afternoon it took some added work to defeat the Bucknell Bison 36-3.

After Devin Schnupp lost a competitive 3-1 battle against Jake Campbell at 125 pounds, Corey Keener turned in a hard-fought major decision,12-4, over David Campbell. With the win, Keener collected 3:51 of riding time and improves to 2-0 to start his Nittany Lion career, something that's already impressing Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson.

"Corey's a great kid and he's a real likeable kid," Sanderson said. "He's a great wrestler too, he has goals he wants to accomplish and I think he's wrestling well. When you're wrestling on a team with guys like Zain [Retherford] and [Jason] Nolf, [Nick] Nevills, Bo Nickal and Mark Hall, I think you're going to up your game to play at that level."

Jered Cortez followed suit at 141 pounds beating Matt Kolonia 10-4 with 1:12 of riding time.

Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf then delivered with back-to-back pins in the second period.

Retherford, who is rarely taken to the mat, isn't afraid to expand his repertoire.

"I got taken down today," Retherford said. "But that was something where I was trying a new move and I'm just going to keep doing that." 

Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall recorded third period technical falls, with Sanderson making specific note of Joseph's performance.

"(Vincenzo's) got great leg attacks," Sanderson said. "He can threaten you with the upper body stuff also. His opponent was comfortable in that position too, but I thought Vincenzo looked really good tonight. His double legs were crisp and he did a nice job on top." 

After Anthony Cassar lost a hard-fought match, which included two late takedowns in the final 40 seconds, Nick Nevills closed out the afternoon with an 11-4 win at heavyweight. 

While it wasn't Nevills' flashiest performance, it included 2:50 of riding time and represented the Nittany Lions day on the mat, 10 hard-fought performances.

Just a week into the season, Sanderson is focused more on scoring points than the flashy moves or early pins, with improvements as the focus moving forward. 

"It just depends on a lot of different things," Sanderson said. "But, we're not looking for first period pins right now. If it happens, it happens. We're just trying to wrestle and score points and get better and we saw a lot of that."

New Faces, Secret Moves Highlight Opener

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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Bonus point victories are a strength yet again for the Penn State wrestling team. The top-ranked Nittany Lions collected five pins and a tech fall in addition to a major decision and two decisions to beat the Army West Point Black Knights 45-3 in the 2017-18 opener.

"We're just happy to be rolling," Nittany Lion head coach Cael Sanderson said. "We're happy to get out there and see where we're at and what we can work on and how we can improve. I think it's going to be a great year.

After Devin Schnupp dropped a close 6-4 decision to Army's Trey Chalifoux at 125 pounds, Central Michigan transfer Corey Keener tilted the match in the Nittany Lions favor with a pin to begin his Penn State career. The Pennsylvania native collected the fall with just 10 seconds left in the first period.

"Corey went out with the big headlock," Sanderson said. "We've been working on that all week. I thought that was a great to see."

Keener enjoyed recording the fall, but knows there are adjustments to be made.

"Going out with a fall was pretty nice," Keener said. "But, I definitely think I could've opened up a little more and tried scoring more points early in the first period. Ultimately, I was able to get the fall with the headlock."

Making his Rec Hall debut in front of 6,320 fans, the crowd was just like his teammates described to him before he hit the mat.

"It was nice to have that reaction from the crowd," Keener said. "Coming out, it was exciting. It was kind of different, I didn't really have any nerves and it was almost too calm I thought."

Jered Cortez got out to a winning start after jumping to 141 pounds with a 12-6 decision over Austin Harry.

Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Mark Hall, Bo Nickal and Nick Nevills did what they do best - all five won via fall. While Bo Nickal's was the fastest coming in just 26 seconds, it was Jason Nolf who stole the show.

Nolf won in 1:07, utilizing a "secret move." While it was not the same secret move we saw Nickal unleash to beat Rutgers' Nicholas Gravina last year, it was instead a move in which Nolf utilized his legs to take control of Luke Weiland to set up the fall.

"It might've been my first time (ever using it)," Nolf said. "It (comes from) a lot of play wrestling in the room and learning different things."

Cael Sanderson approved as well.

"I enjoyed watching it," Sanderson said. "He knows what he's doing. You may see that again, just guessing, throughout the year. He's getting pretty good at it."

After being unable to wrestle for two years, Anthony Cassar made his Nittany Lion debut at 197 pounds and didn't disappoint with a 10-3 decision over a tough Rocco Caywood.

"I was just excited," Cassar said. "It has been so long of just hard training and getting ready for competition that I really just tried to enjoy it as much as I could."

On media day, heavyweight wrestler Nick Nevills said he wantsedto be a top point scorer for the Nittany Lions this year. He got right on track defeating Bobby Heald via fall in six minutes and 10 seconds.

"We need him," Sanderson said. "He's capable of scoring bonus points, he's very good on top and he can scramble. "We want those guys competing in a friendly way with each other as teammates."

The Nittany Lions next host Bucknell at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Rec Hall.

Wrestling Roundup - Media Day

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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With just a week until the start of the 2017-18 wrestling season, Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson met with the media for the first time. The NCAA defending national champions return all five of last year's individual national champions, looking to add their eighth title in the last nine seasons.

125, 133, 141 Still to Be Set
There is no question the Nittany Lions return a strong core group of seven, which includes six All-Americans, but there are still potentially three open spots in the lineup for Penn State. 

With a vacancy at 125 pounds there is a three-man battle as the freshmen trio of Justin Lopez, Devin Schnupp and Austin Clabaugh continue to fight for the starting nod come opening night against Army.

"We have three freshmen and they're just all scrappy kids," Sanderson said. "We'll find out as the dust settles who our guy is in that weight class, but I'm sure that will be exciting for our fans to see who runs out there next Thursday." 

At 133 pounds, graduate transfer Corey Keener has potential to earn the starting nod. A Schulykill Haven, Pennsylvnaia native, Keener is a three-time NCAA qualifier who transferred to Penn State from Central Michigan University.

"He's just a good, solid kid," Sanderson said. "Real tough in the room, but again we'll find out as the season plays along."

Jered Cortez also returns for the Nittany Lions after a season-ending injury shortened his campaign last year. He will be fighting for the start at 141 pounds alongside Nick Lee, an impressive true freshman. 

"(Cortez) is back, he's 100-percent," Sanderson said. "He's been for several months now, and I think up at 141 he'll have less risk of injury, that's just the nature of the best. But, he's fast and strong and he's tough on the mat."

Lee is poised to provide stiff competition for the starting spot, but like any Nittany Lion, he'll have to earn it.

"He's got to be a clear-cut choice on the best option," Sanderson said. "It's just going to depend on who we feel gives us the best chance to score points there." 

The Rest Return
For Sanderson's squad, the rest of the lineup is packed with returning potential. Five of the remaining seven spots in the lineup are filled by last season's NCAA champions, with the addition of All-American Nick Nevills and Matt McCutcheon, who provides veteran leadership as a three-time NCAA qualifier.

It's no secret Zain Retherford will be the starter at 149 pounds. Coming off a World Championships appearance this past summer, Retherford is the reigning two-time NCAA champion at 149 pounds and owns last season's Hodge Trophy as well. The senior doesn't feel any different in his final season with the Nittany Lions. 

"I think it's the same mentality," Retherford said. "It's my last year, but there's no reason to change my mindset. I've been grateful to compete, keep improving and keep working on growing as a wrestler and as a person.

Jason Nolf will be poised to continue as the starter at 157 pounds, after finishing as a runner-up in his first season, then as a national champion last year.

At 165 pounds Vincenzo Joseph returns after pinning Isaiah Martinez in the NCAA finals to take home last year's crown. Joseph is ready for the new season though, focused solely on his wrestling and not the outside noise. 

"For me personally, my goal is to be the best wrestler I can be," Joseph said. "So, it's on me and what I can do. I like the challenge"

Mark Hall returns as last season's champion at 174 pounds and has some added experience after winning the 74 kg title for the United States at the Junior World Championships in Finland.

"It was good (this summer)," Hall said. "It was even better winning the team title for the country, our first one in a while." 

Hall will begin his season wrestling at the NWCA All-Star Classic taking on Zahid Valencia, a rematch of last year's NCAA semifinal bout at 174 pounds. 

At 184 pounds, Bo Nickal returns, hoping to continue to break out new moves as the year rolls along. The junior says he has added a few more special moves, but they won't be revealed until he breaks them out during a match.

Matt McCutcheon bolsters the Nittany Lions lineup at 197 pounds, also balancing a spot on the Penn State baseball team come spring.

Nick Nevills rounds out the Nittany Lions starters at heavyweight. Nevills says he could be in the top three in scoring on the team. 

"That's something I'm aiming for, more points than last year," Nevills said. "I think I was fourth on the team in points, maybe fifth, and so I'd like to be a little bit higher than that. But it's tough when you have people like Zain, Jason and Bo, who pretty much pin everybody they wrestle. It just makes you want to compete that much more to be better and try to keep up with the kind of points they're producing. That's where I'd like to see myself up there and crack the top three."

Nevills joins Hall at the NWCA All-Star Classic this on Sunday, Nov. 5.

Nittany Lions Atop the Rankings
While some teams don't mind being the underdog, Sanderson and his team prefer the challenge of being top dog from the start.

"We don't want to be the underdog," Sanderson said. "We want to have that expectation. It's a more difficult position to be in and it's what you want. It's easy to be an underdog because that means based on your history your expectations are low. Well we want, based on our history, high expectations."

The Nittany Lions kick off the 2017-18 campaign at home Thursday, Nov. 9 hosting Army at Rec Hall.

Retherford Set for UWW World Championships

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's been months since two-time Nittany Lion national champion Zain Retherford helped Penn State to a stunning NCAA team title performance in St. Louis.

Pausing for just a week off, Retherford was back at it, and like any great champion, training as usual in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. 

In the weeks following an exquisite collegiate season, the honors and accolades continued to pile up in Retherford's name. Already a three-time All-American, the NCAA Championships' Most Outstanding Wrestler and the 2017 Most Dominant Wrestler, he earned another InterMat Wrestler of the Year honor before capping off an unblemished 2017 season with the prestigious Hodge Trophy.

Humbled by each award, Retherford remained focused as usual, prepping for the 2017 U.S. World Team Trials in Lincoln, Nebraska, where just eight spots on the U.S. Senior World Team ahead of the UWW Wrestling Championships in late August were primed for earning.

Retherford made quick work of his three Challenge Tournament opponents, topping Jaydin Eierman (14-2; 2:32), Nick Dardanes (11-0; 3:32) and B.J. Futrell (10-0; 3:50) to advance to the Championship best-of-three series, which presented a bit an unexpected matchup.

A disqualification meant Retherford was set to meet 2016 Olympian and former Nittany Lion four-time All-American national champion, and assistant coach Frank Molinaro.

"It kind of threw me for a loop a little bit," Retherford said. "I was kind of preparing for the other way around, but I kind of realized whoever I am wrestling is out of my control. I just kind of focus on whatever comes next and that was next."

The familiarity wasn't any reason for added nerves or emotion.

"I try to keep the emotions out of it," Retherford said. "Wrestling a teammate or coach, I've done that before so I think that prepared me for this. If you get too emotionally attached to the match, even if it's not a teammate, you're not going to wrestle at your best."

Despite a late surge to move ahead, Retherford ultimately dropped a 7-6 decision to Molinaro in the opening bout of the series. 

"I took a second and lost focus and he scored on me with short time left," Retherford said.
"After that match, I didn't really feel tired at all, even coming through the challenge tournament. I came off the mat and I remember I was a little frustrated because I was like man, it would be so much nicer not to have to wrestle three matches."

Returning to his control-the-controllable mindset, Retherford made adjustments and beat Molinaro 6-0 in the second match, setting up a deciding finish to the best-of-three series.

Meanwhile, in between matches Retherford's younger sister Mylee asked the rest of the Retherford family what would happen if Zain did not win his final match. The answer of course, was no trip to Paris, France for the 2017 UWW Senior World Championships of course, prompting fingers-crossed headed into the final match.

Retherford channeled the momentum into the third match, as Molinaro matched the intensity for an early lead. 

"He came out ready to wrestle in that third one for sure," Retherford said. "At the end of the second match things started to get physical and things just kind of picked right up where they left off in the third match and we both kind of met each other like pit bulls or something, I don't know."

With blood streaming down his face, Retherford gritted out a 7-4 win to lock up his first spot on the U.S. Senior World Team, later moving him to the top of the U.S. Senior-level division rankings at 65 kg (143 pounds).

While Retherford is rarely caught in an over-the-top celebration, in fact you'll hardly ever see one, this particular win was a big one. 

"I got kind of emotional afterward because I haven't made a world team since high school, going into my senior year," Retherford said. "That was really big for me, I like wrestling overseas and getting opportunities now to do that is big." 

A lot has changed for Retherford since earning his official spot on the U.S. Senior World Team. 

"When I first made my first world team I thought wrestling was more like a fight so I was really physical," Retherford said. "The more I've grown throughout the years I've realized that you need to have that fight in the do or die situations in wrestling, that needs to be a given, but you can't wrestle the whole match like that or your technique kind of goes out the window."

Retherford, who was also nominated for an ESPN ESPY (Best Male College Athlete), was also selected as Penn State's 2017 Male Student-Athlete of The Year.

Similar to the end of every competition though, it's back to work.

Among stops at a few U.S. training camps, Retherford ended up missing out on the ESPYs to join the U.S. Senior World Team at the Grand Prix of Spain. In his U.S. Senior World Team debut, Retherford helped the United States to a stellar showing, capturing gold at 65 kg (143 pounds) without surrendering a single point with three consecutive pins and a tech fall.

Now, Retherford will turn the focus to the 2017 UWW Senior World Championships, which kicks off August 21st in Paris. Retherford is scheduled to compete August 26th, with fans from the United States able to stay up to date with streaming and results courtesy of Trackwrestling.com. 

Champions Visit State Capitol

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HARRISBURG, Pa. - Penn State hit the state capitol today for an afternoon of recognition, celebrating Nittany Lion conference champion student-athletes and head coaches following a record-setting 2016-17 season both in competition and in the classroom.

Joined by select head coaches and staff members as well as student-athletes, the group toured through the Pennsylvania House and Senate, stopping in for lunch with Sen. Jake Corman in his office. Penn State then made its way to the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate before remarks from Corman, welcoming the group to the state's capitol following a few early proceedings.

Penn State then made its way to the floor of the Pennsylvania House, which holds all 203 members, including Pennsylvania's Rep. Mike Hanna, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, Rep. Rich Irvin and Rep. Scott Conklin, who read a resolution to again welcome and congratulate the Nittany Lions on an all-around successful season, one that drew a standing ovation from the members on the floor. 

"I want to congratulate the teams for not only what they do on the field but what they do in the community, the outreach they give, the coaches who oversee them," Conklin said. 

Nittany Lion director of athletics Sandy Barbour only echoed the all-around success in her remarks in the main rotunda later in the afternoon, noting that the individuals surrounding her representing a combined 2016-17 total of nine conference titles, among a few other crowns, are only one part of the story.

Penn State was recently slated fourth in the first spring update of the Learfield Directors' Cup standings following a year that saw seven Nittany Lion squads earn Big Ten Championships or tournament titles in seven sports, the most of any league institution and the third-highest total in school history.

As head coach Cael Sanderson brought instantaneous cheers from the floor of the Pennsylvania house upon his introduction, the room was reminded of Nittany Lion wrestling team's stunning second consecutive NCAA Wrestling Championship, marking its sixth in the last seven years, with five individuals earning NCAA titles along the way.

As Barbour pointed out though, the impact of the Blue and White extends much further than excellence in competition.

Nearly a month ago, a school record 114 Penn State student-athletes graduated, bringing the 2016-17 total to 142, with more students on track to cross the stage in August. Penn State also revealed its 89 percent NCAA Graduation Success Rate this year, which stands just one point below its all-time program mark. 

"Penn State student-athletes, not unlike their student colleagues and their servant hearts, have dedicated themselves to service," Barbour said. "Our student-athletes served over 6,200 hours of community engagement this last year. This comprehensive excellence is embraced by our Penn State and Pennsylvania community. It's truly Penn State's point of difference. It has historically motivated a state and a community, connected passionately to each and every one of our programs and each and every one of our student-athletes who wear the Blue and White."

Representative of just a small piece of a variety of community engagement close to Penn State student-athletes is THON, a beloved annual event that encompasses the entire university and Happy Valley community.

Led by the efforts of the Penn State Student Athlete Advisory Board, SAAB raised $59,679.49 for THON in 2017, which ranked third among the 400-plus general organizations represented. Surging past a fundraising goal of $50,000, the 2017 figure is SAAB's second-largest total in the history of the organization, adding to a career total of $680,000, all for THON and the Four Diamonds Fund, with four Penn State student-athletes joining the 703 dancers on the floor this year.

Among those dancers this year was women's soccer's Megan Schafer, a Big Ten Champion from Langhorne, who joined the group today for her second trip to state capitol, but first as a Nittany Lion. 

"A couple of years ago I got recognized for winning a state championship, so I think it's pretty cool coming back at the collegiate level to get recognized for our hard work all season," Schafer said. "I think it's really cool everything that people put together just to recognize us today."

Prior to Penn State, Schafer scored the overtime game-winner to lead Neshaminy high school (also the alma mater of Penn State head football coach James Franklin) to a Pennsylvania state title.

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The entire group of Nittany Lion coaches and student-athletes were treated to a personal meeting with Gov. Tom Wolf, who stopped by the steps of the main rotunda to greet the champions before heading back to Happy Valley.

Perfect Ending for Nittany Lion National Champions

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By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com

ST. LOUIS - It was a perfect night for Penn State wrestling in nearly every sense of the term perfection, as the Nittany Lions powered to a jaw-dropping 5-0 mark in the 2017 NCAA Championship Finals, only adding on to a previously clinched seventh NCAA title in program history.

With NCAA crowns in six of the last seven seasons including the last two in a row, Penn State brought the 19,657 fans at the Scottrade Center to the edge of their seats and on to their feet in an emotional outing that saw five Nittany Lion finalists earn NCAA championship titles.

Penn State's five NCAA national champions marks just the third time that a DI team has seen five individuals earn NCAA titles, and the first since Oklahoma State did so in 2005.

Having already secured the team title in the earlier session Saturday afternoon, Penn State bolstered its score to a Nittany Lion record-setting 146.5 points, finishing well ahead of second-place Ohio State (110) and third-place Oklahoma State (103).

Among the Nittany Lion national champions, All-Americans Bo Nickal (184), Jason Nolf (157) and Zain Retherford (149) combined for a total of 82.5 points, which would have placed the trio sixth overall in the final team standings.

Penn State also made history with All-Americans, true freshman Mark Hall (174) and redshirt freshman Vincenzo Joseph (165) earning their first titles to become the first freshmen NCAA champions in program history.

Top-seeded Retherford opened Penn State's stunning streak with an 18-2 technical fall at the 6:42 mark against Missouri's No. 3 Lavion Mayes. Unphased by an early Mayes takedown, Retherford built a 6-2 lead with more than two minutes of riding time by the end of the second period before breaking open the scoring in the third period to earn his second consecutive NCAA title as well as both 2017 NCAA Championships Most Outstanding Wrestler and Most Dominant Wrestler honors.

Fellow No. 1 seed Nolf followed with a 14-6 major decision against Missouri's No. 3 Joey Lavallee, using a tricky late takedown to take control of a 6-1 lead heading into the third period. There was no stopping Nolf in the final frame though, as he rolled to his first career NCAA title. 

It was third-seeded Joseph (165) who then set deciding tone for the Nittany Lions, pinning Illinois' top-seeded two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez in a matchup that will likely be imprinted in the minds of the Nittany Lion faithful long after tonight. Heading into the third period with 1:05 in riding time and tied at 5-5, Joseph proved calm under pressure, confidently turning Martinez for the fall at 5:25 to send Nittany Lions at the Scottrade Center into a frenzy. 

"I was confident going in," Joseph said. "Even after I gave up that first takedown I was, like, they went to review it. I went back, talked to my coaches. First thing I said to them was: I'm scoring soon. I could feel it starting to open up, and I knew I was going to get to my attack soon. Get an opportunity there." 

In a rematch of the Big Ten Championship Finals, Hall used a late takedown with fewer than 25 seconds on the clock to defeat Ohio State's No. 3 Bo Jordan to become the second freshman NCAA national champion.

"It's a tough tournament," Hall said. "I've wrestled a lot of places. This is one of the tougher places. There are a lot of people out there. I've wrestled around the world, different people, different countries and the important thing, just have fun. I told myself over and over as soon as the negative thought came into my mind, I replaced it with Jesus loves you, NCAA champion, over and over." 

In yet another highly anticipated matchup, No. 2 Nickal (184) battled top-seeded Gabe Dean from Cornell. Keeping it close throughout, Nickal worked from behind with a takedown in the second period, which was challenged but confirmed with :41 left in the frame. Arriving back within one, 4-3 off the escape, Nickal held on for the close victory.

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Bonus points and records aside though, long before the streak of five consecutive finals wins and the pure dominance across the last three days, the Nittany Lions have been putting in some serious work, and there's no better place than Happy Valley to train for greatness on a daily basis. As Nickal says, excellence breeds excellence. 

"That's what we're doing at Penn State," Nickal said. "So each and every group that we get is top notch. A kid not only as a wrestler but as a person, and I feel that really is what's going to make the difference over the long run. I mean, there's a lot of talent out there but at Penn State, we get the right kinds of people and kids with character. That shows. You see kids coming in like Nick Suriano, Mark Hall, Vincenzo [Joseph], kids coming in, winning at the highest levels."

Training together among a wealth of talent at both the collegiate and international, professional level, the progress is all part of a legacy the Nittany Lions add on to every day, developing closer as true family unit.

"It's competitive," Hall said, reflecting on the atmosphere inside the Penn State wrestling room. "We have days where I might not get a takedown. We have days where some of our best guys are struggling. And it's just because we're all so good. We're so good out here, but when we're in the room it's like you're just another guy. There's no favoritism. We're all one."

For head coach Cael Sanderson, who has now guided the Nittany Lions to six NCAA Championships in eight years at the helm of the program, this one is special.

"I'm still kind of like it's just crazy because usually you have somebody lose or something doesn't go right, and as a competitor your heart is always with the kid that doesn't reach his goal," Sanderson said.

There were no somber moments for the Nittany Lions Saturday night. Instead, there was euphoria and celebration, but most importantly, gratitude. 

"I mean our guys are pretty good, as you can see," Nolf said." We've got five guys in the finals back to back to back to back to back. So those guys are definitely some of the toughest guys I get to wrestle. We get to learn each other's - how we wrestle. We're continuously evolving because we're competitive and we want to keep getting better and better and we all just help each other do that."


Reach Arielle at ans26@psu.edu or follow on Twitter at @arielle_sargent

NCAA Championships: Session V Highlights

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By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com

ST. LOUIS - Penn State's Nick Nevills highlighted session five with a fifth-place finish in the NCAA DI Wrestling Championships, adding on to an All-America finish in his first-career tournament appearance. 

Although marking his first time competing on the mats on the biggest stage, Nevills has been a regular at the annual event since seventh grade. 

While some families prefer sunny beaches or theme parks, the NCAA Wrestling Championships is the annual family vacation spot for the Nevills. Along with brothers Zach, A.J. and Seth, mom Kerri and dad Wayne, the Nevills' made their first trip to the NCAA Wrestling Championships in 2010 in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Flash forward a few years as Nick Nevills was poised to settle his collegiate choice, eventually completing a standout high school career at Clovis high school with four straight California state titles among a plethora of honors and accolades.

Having attended a camp at another Big Ten school, Nevills and his mom rented a car and drove to Penn State for a visit. A Clovis, California native, Nevills picked Penn State, with older brother Zach already on the roster at Stanford.

As Kerri and Wayne recall, it was Zach who started the Nevills family wrestling tradition and Nick, who followed close behind along the same wrestling path. Younger brother A.J. will soon join the Nittany Lion roster with Seth still in high school, having recently become the fifth wrestler to win titles after his first three seasons at Clovis. 

Since arriving at Penn State though, Nick Nevills' path hasn't been without a few road blocks along the way. Having never really experienced an injury, Nevills stepped up to overcome the unfamiliar. At full strength to start the season, Nevills put together a 12-2 regular season dual record with a 7-2 mark in conference action this year. Nevills also went 4-1 to finish third at the Big Ten Championships (285), tallying three pins along the way.

On Thursday, Nevills was set to make a different kind of trip to the NCAA Wrestling Championships. By Saturday afternoon, in a rematch of his earlier quarterfinal bout, Nevills rallied to defeat Duke's No. 4 Jacob Kasper for a 4-3 sudden victory and a fifth-place finish in session five. At 5-2 in his first NCAA Tournament, Nevills closed out the season at 25-8 overall with seven pins, as one of six All-America honorees in the lineup this year.

"I'm just glad I was able to go out there and get the win and wrestle hard," Nevills said. "He took me down right at the end of the first period and I just knew from that point I was going to have to wrestle a little bit harder and pick up the pace and that's what I did and it got me the win." 

Taking just a brief moment to reflect, the 2017 NCAA Championships have already been an experience he'll take so much from moving forward.

"It's exciting, a really good experience and I have a lot to take away from this," Nevills said. "I have a lot to build on through the next year and just really looking forward to the offseason growth that I have because I can get better in every area and that's an exciting factor. I don't think I'm anywhere near my potential or my ceiling so that's a really good feeling and I'm really looking forward to working with the coaches and the guys on the team."

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Surrounded by the endless support of his family, Nevills also got to watch oldest brother Zach (184), make his first NCAA Championships debut in his final season with the Cardinal.

"It was awesome getting to see him wrestle and getting to see him do something that he's always wanted to do and getting to see my brothers and family in the stands when I walked out and they were just out there supporting me, texting me and telling me they loved me and they were praying for me," Nevills said. "It was just awesome to be able to compete in front of them."

Another piece of the Nevills family trip to the NCAA Wrestling Championships is friendly competition, or "Master of the Universe," which originated from the first trip to Omaha. A fantasy-style draft from the NCAA Championships field, the highly anticipated tradition has some pretty extensive rules that have evolved over time, but all in good fun. Encompassing the entire family as well as close friends, the winner emerges with a trophy, even engraved with family names on the bottom. 

While not participating in the annual family tradition this year, Nick has won once, but according to Kerri, Nick's name has an asterisk next to it on the trophy due to an illegal trade. It's still under review. 

Session five action also saw the Nittany Lions clinch the the NCAA national championship team title, marking Penn State's sixth national championship crown in the last seven years and second consecutive. 

In the grand finale of the three-day event, Penn State's five finalists will square off for individual NCAA national titles beginning at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. 

"I'm really looking forward to watching all five of our guys in the finals," Nevills said. "I think all five of them have a really good chance of winning and I'm just really excited to watch and I'm super proud of this team.


Reach Arielle at ans26@psu.edu or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent

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